(March 2, 2:51 p.m.) If Congress passes its latest spending bill, Mexican-licensed trucks could be forced back into operating within 25 miles north of the U.S. border.

But the ban, which would reverse a Bush administration policy, would have few ripples in the fresh produce industry.

“I haven’t seen very much interest from Mexican trucking companies wanting to take advantage” of a pilot program allowing Mexican trucks to operate internally in the U.S., said Terry Shannon Jr., vice president of Shannon Brokerage, Nogales, Ariz., and former chairman of the Greater Nogales-Santa Cruz County Port Authority.

“I don’t think there was enough participation even for a study,” Shannon said. “If there was some great interest, there would’ve been companies knocking on the door trying to get trucks in. But that interest just hasn’t been there.”

Opening U.S. highways to Mexican trucks by 2000 was a provision of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement passed under the President Clinton administration. But several organizations, led by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, fought to keep the borders closed.

But in 2007 an appeals court cleared the way for a one-year pilot program allowing 100 Mexican carriers to send trucks beyond the commercial zones.

“As I recall, there were about 35 U.S. companies approved and about 14-15 Mexican companies, and I don’t know of any that were produce companies. Most were tequila companies,” said Jesse Driskill, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales.

A $410 billion spending bill put forth by House Democrats Feb. 23 to keep government running through the end of the fiscal year included legislation that effectively ended the pilot program.

The same day, Senate Democrats also moved to kill the pilot program. Language in the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act would eliminate the program.

Before the pilot program, Mexican drivers waited at border crossings and transferred cargo to U.S. trucks, a procedure critics claimed increased costs, pollution and congestion.

That’s the way it had been done for decades, and some believe it would be easy to go back to those ways.

“(The commercial zone restrictions) doesn’t change much, because that’s the way it’s been forever and forever,” said George Mendez, a customs broker in Rio Rico, Ariz. “Only the big companies were able to take advantage of the pilot program anyway.”

Even if the borders were fully opened, Mendez said it would be some time before there were noticeable changes.

“Why would companies want to carry a load from Nogales all the way up north and then have to turn around and drive empty all the way back?” he said. “You have to set up programs, and those things take years to set up.

“It’s an interesting situation, and we watch it every day,” Mendez said. “One way or the other, it’s not going to change things a whole lot. We’re going to adapt one way or the other, either way.”

Shannon suggested the best solution might be a tweaking of the NAFTA provision.

“Maybe something like a 300-mile (commercial) zone might be more enticing rather than free reign,” Shannon said. “That way, Mexican trucks could haul into more of the major cities.

“But, we’ve been doing it a certain way for a hundred years. I guess it’s going to take a while to change.”